Learning Together: The Human Face of Science Education

By Ron Stanley

The following article appears in the November/December 1997 issue of the ASTC Newsletter. Ron Stanley was ASTC's Editor.


"People want to see a face," said Dwight Curry, gallery assistant supervisor at the St. Louis Science Center, Mo. "Often it's the encounter with an intelligent, skilled staff person that a visitor will remember most after going to a museum."

Curry was discussing the importance of front-line floor staff in a science museum, but his remarks resonated throughout the 1997 ASTC Annual Conference, a meeting dedicated to "Learning Together." A number of sessions at the conference explored the need learners have for human interaction.

The ASTC Annual Conference also provided plenty of opportunities for science center colleagues to learn together, from hands-on educational activities to workshops that let personnel plan a museum with a budget of $600.

The St. Louis conference broke the record for the most attendees at the ASTC Annual Conference: more than 1,600 science center professionals from 32 countries attended. The exhibit hall featured booths from 85 exhibitors, some of whom had the unique opportunity of exhibiting in the St. Louis Science Center's Exploradome, an inflatable building used for traveling exhibits, events, and workshops.

Vygotsky and the lost boots
The conference theme was articulated strongly by Jim Wertsch, a professor in the Department of Education and Program on Philosophy, Neuroscience, and Psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, in a session titled "Appropriating the Museum Experience: A Neo-Vygotskyian Perspective." Wertsch provided an overview of the theories of Lev Vygotsky, a Russian educational theorist who argued that individual thought is social discourse that has been internalized.

Wertsch gave the example of a girl who asks her father to help her find her boots. The father asks: "Did you have them at school? Did you have them on the bus? What did you do when you came home?" The daughter, through this questioning process, realizes that the last place she had the boots was near the aquarium in her room. "Why don't you go look near the aquarium?" the father suggests.

"Who did the remembering, the daughter or the father?" Wertsch asked. Neither: the dyad remembered. The process of remembering required both people; in Wertsch's terminology, it occurred on the "intermental plane." Successful social interactions can lead people to repeat the same processes inside their own heads, on the "intramental plane," according to Wertsch. "Later, [as an adult] when the girl loses her keys, she may go through the same questioning process. She has internalized the questions....Vygotsky argued that all higher mental functions appear twice, first between people and then within people," said Wertsch. The significance of these ideas for science centers is that they must find ways to promote social learning instead of just showing phenomena to their visitors.

Language is one of the cultural tools that shapes how we are able to think and learn. Rather than conceiving of speech as "articulated thoughts," Vygotsky saw thought as "inner speech." But this relationship is not deterministic, according to Wertsch. We are trapped by the limits of the language we use, but by changing the way we use language, we can change our social relationships and the way we think.

As an example of how language can be used deliberately to change the nature of a social relationship, Wertsch pointed out that traditional teaching frequently uses instructional questions that are initiated by the teacher, responded to by the novice, and whose answers are evaluated by the teacher. "This kind of question creates a power/authority relationship between teacher and novice," noted Wertsch. "The teacher has the authority to pose questions and evaluate, and the student has the responsibility to respond."

Wertsch contrasted instructional questions with genuine questions, or questions the teacher doesn't know the answer to. These kinds of questions create a more balanced relationship between the person asking the question and the person trying to answer it. Both people can become involved as partners in a search for the answer.

Wertsch pointed out that museums are fundamentally different from schools. "We can't expect the same kinds of learning outcomes in museums. Instructional questions turn people off. Museum attendance is voluntary, so you can't make the learning process into a power relationship," said Wertsch.

Wertsch concluded with a discussion of mastery and appropriation, two terms used by Mikhail Bakhtin, another Russian theorist whose ideas were similar to Vygotsky's. The mission of museums, or any institution involved in education, is to help people master and appropriate cultural tools. Mastery over a tool indicates the ability to use it as an expert, while appropriation, a translation of the Russian word prisvoenie, means "to bring something into oneself," or to make it one's own.

Mastery without appropriation is the cynical use of knowledge. Wertsch gave the example of former Soviet Union party leaders who became expert in manipulating Marxist theories that they did not themselves believe. Appropriation without mastery is excitement about a new concept without true understanding of that concept, as often happens when people are first exposed to an idea. The goal of museums, according to Wertsch, should be to lead people to mastery through appropriation, to help people make ideas their own so they can come to a deeper understanding.

A light bulb comes on
Karen Leichtweis, project officer of the Annenberg/CPB Math and Science Project, provided a vivid representation of the importance of social interaction when she presented a videotape of Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates, in cloak and gown for graduation ceremonies, trying to light a bulb using only a battery and one wire. A surprising number of students at what may be the United States' top engineering school were unable to perform this seemingly simple feat.

Although the graduates were given the tools they needed and time to experiment with the tools, many of them were unable to complete the task because they had a naive theory of electricity, according to Leichtweis. The video was part of the session, "How Many Harvard Graduates Does It Take to Light a Bulb with a Battery and a Wire?" Science center personnel attending the session had somewhat better success making the light come on.

Leichtweis related a similar story in which elementary school students were allowed to experiment with light bulbs. The students erroneously concluded that the ceramic bases holding the bulbs conducted electricity. "You can't just do hands-on," said Leichtweis. "You have to draw out their ideas to make sure people aren't coming to false conclusions."

Experience with phenomena alone does not create understanding, according to Leichtweis and copresenters Peter Dow, director of education, Buffalo Museum of Science, N.Y., and Lee Schmitt, manager of teacher programs, Science Museum of Minnesota. As a final example, the group showed a video of a hair stylist, who spent many hours a day working around mirrors, yet did not realize that the percent of your body that you see in a mirror does not vary with your distance from the mirror. Like most people, the hair stylist in the video insisted that as you get farther from a mirror, more of your body becomes visible. Such is not the case.

Science center staff learn together
Visitor-staff interactions were not the only type of social contact covered under the rubric of learning together. Managers of floor staff in the session "Staffing an Exhibit: Front-line Floor Staff Speak Out" emphasized the importance of museum staff learning together, through involving floor staff in exhibit development and making sure administrators kept in touch with what was going on down on the floor.

Amanda Jopling, staff scientist at Science North, Sudbury, Ontario, suggested that museums involve their floor staff in decisions about exhibit development and other aspects of the museum. "Involvement in exhibit development creates a sense of ownership of the museum," said Jopling.

Dwight Curry, gallery assistant supervisor at the St. Louis Science, echoed Jopling's sentiments. Curry shared a technique used by the St. Louis Science Center to keep administrators apprised of problems and staff involved in solving them. Science center staff met in small groups, and each group wrote down five challenges faced by the science center. The list of challenges was passed to another small group that had to come up with solutions for each of the problems. Because each group had to come up with solutions as well as problems, the process went beyond griping to finding constructive answers, according to Curry.

Mark Randall, science explainer supervisor, Pacific Science Center, Seattle, the final presenter in the session, urged museums to find ways to make work easier for front-line staff. Randall pointed out that social learning is particularly important to teenagers. "One-on-one attention with an adult is highly valuable," he said. "You need to give teens experience working with staff before they go out on the floor."

The conference is not only a medium for disseminating good practices; it reflects those practices in the ways presenters interact with attendees. As is always the case at the ASTC conference, attendees received plenty of opportunities to do hands-on science activities and learn together in participatory workshops. "Learning Together" describes the conference as well as it describes the science center field itself.